Jenny Nyström: Creating Scandinavian Christmas
An artist’s vision of a quintessential Nordic jul
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
When thinking about Christmas in Norway, thoughts often turn to nisse, that adorable little elf who takes care of the farm during the year and comes out for Christmas Eve to get his big bowl of porridge. We picture him with his long white beard and pointed red cap. Like our Saint Nick, he is a giver of gifts. Nisse is somehow synonymous with Norwegian Christmas, popping up on cards and as decorations in homes—just about everywhere you look at Christmastime.
But it may not be known to some Norwegians and Norwegian Americans that it actually was a Swedish artist and illustrator, Jenny Nyström, who painted and drew many of the images of the Christmas elf so familiar to us. Nyström was largely responsible for conceptualizing the popular image of nisse—or tomte, as he is called in Swedish—and connecting the traditional gnomes of Scandinavian folklore to the Anglo-American figure of Santa Claus.
Jenny Eugenia Nyström was born in Kalmar in southern Sweden on June 13 or 15, 1854, into an artistically inclined family. Her father was a schoolteacher, musician, and church cantor, whose work took the family to the larger city of Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast.
In Gothenburg, Jenny was given the opportunity to study art, and with time, she was admitted to the prestigious Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm. She excelled during her eight years of studies there and went on to earn a scholarship to study in Paris for another four years before returning to Sweden—all quite an accomplishment for a young woman of her day.
In Paris, the young artist discovered the booming postcard industry, and she decided to make a name for herself as a postcard illustrator in her home country. She was inspired by a Christmas story Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton (Little Vigg’s Adventures on Christmas Eve) by the famous Swedish storyteller Viktor Rydberg. The author was delighted with her drawings and immediately sent them to the large Swedish publishing house Bonniers, who duly rejected them.
But Rydberg knew talent when he saw it and did not give up so quickly. He sent the illustrations to another publisher. It immediately picked them up, launching Nyström’s career. Her output in the decades that followed until her death in 1946 was prolific, as she depicted everyday life in Sweden throughout the seasons—especially Christmas.
Nyström had been the third of five children, who grew up in an extended household together with loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. She described her childhood as having been happy and idyllic, a feeling or mood that comes through in her paintings and drawings.
The artist loved to paint children. She once said: “The reason I mainly illustrate children’s books is probably because I have always loved children and have always wanted to show children something of the fair sunny land east of the sun and west of the moon, beauty that has remained in my memory from my childhood in Kalmar. Maybe now you can also understand why I prefer to draw beautiful images.”
This outlook on life also influenced Nyström’s conception of the tomte or nisse. While many of her predecessors’ depictions have a more sinister look to them, Nyström’s are more cheerful and calm in demeanor, reflective of an idealized view of life that prevails throughout all her work.
But life did not only hold happiness for her. The move to Gothenburg had been sad for the young girl, thrusting her into her studies and art. This trajectory of hard work would continue throughout her entire life.
Once in Stockholm, she fell in love with and married Daniel Stoopendaal, a medical student, in 1887. The couple moved into a large apartment to start their life together, but, sadly, Nyström’s husband fell ill with tuberculosis and was never able to finish his studies or work. In 1893, their son, Curt, was born, and the artist was left to single-handedly provide for the entire family.
Then in 1911, Nyström signed a contract to draw greeting cards for a major publishing house. This meant that she needed to produce a certain number of watercolors each month for the cards, which brought great exposure for her art and name. Jenny Nyström became a household sensation.
Her work soon became popular all over Scandinavia, as it appeared on Christmas cards, in magazines, and in books in Norway and Denmark. With time, Nyström’s illustrations made their way to England, Germany, and all over the world. There is something timelessly appealing about them, and they are still being printed and enjoyed today.
The artist’s Christmas images are full of elements from traditional Scandinavian folklore: Christmas goats, Christmas pigs, and Christmas trees. The little red-capped nisse comes riding on a goat instead of a reindeer, his arms full of presents for all children who were well-behaved throughout the year.
In some of her Norwegian illustrations, the nisse not only rides on his goat, bringing loads of presents for the children, but he also proudly waves a big Norwegian flag.
In Nyström’s Christmas illustrations, one often recognizes the landscape of her childhood home in southern Sweden where she grew up, with winter cabins surrounded by snow-clad pine trees. There are scenes of both elves and children at work and at play.
The farm, in particular the barn, figures prominently as a Christmas setting. The barn is the home of the tomte or nisse, and he is friend and protector of the farm animals. He is shown bringing the horses sugar cubes to enjoy on Christmas Eve, or the jolly little elf may been seen enjoying a bowl of Christmas porridge. At times, he will be fast asleep on the hay after enjoying his yuletide feast.
Jenny Nyström’s Christmas artwork could also be modern, and, at times, humorous. It was not unusual to see a tomte flying an airplane, driving a car, a truck, a motorcycle, or even a train. She even used exotic animals like elephants and giraffes as assistants to the tomte for delivering Christmas presents across Sweden and Scandinavia. Nyström was an adventurous artist who dared to venture out and move with the times.
Nyström became interested in photography, and she would sometimes take photos of people to serve as models for her artwork. Her illustrations are full of lifelike movement and human expression recognizable from everyday life. There is a feeling of an easy naturalness in all of Nyström’s work. At times, it is almost as if we recognize the faces of people we have known in our own lives.
At times, Nyström actually did draw directly from her own life in work. From the time her son, Curt, was born, he appeared in her paintings wearing a red skull-cap and dressed in a traditional outfit. She also painted a famous portrait of herself with Curt, which she called “Mor och son” (Mother and Son), today known as “Vi två” (We Two).
Curt Nyström Stoopendaal later followed in his mother’s footsteps and became a popular postcard and poster illustrator, creating many Christmas motifs in the technique and spirit of his mother’s artistry. He always signed his works “Curt Nyström.”
In so many ways, Jenny Nyström was a pioneer. She was a woman who beat all the obstacles of her time to establish herself as a successful commercial artist, who solely supported her family with her earnings. She became the first woman in Sweden to be awarded a royal medal for her paintings. She was the “mother of the Swedish tomte” and helped shape the concept of Christmas throughout all of Scandinavia. Each Christmas, she will live on in our hearts through the precious imagery she imagined to create a quintessentially Nordic jul.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.